Why can't women win Top Chef? Female contestants weigh in

Top Chef's top female contenders this season couldn't make the final cut. (bravo.tv)
Top Chef's top female contenders this season couldn't make the final cut. (bravo.tv)

On last night's season finale of "Top Chef: All Stars" four female contestants blanched, chopped, and sweated their way through the finale. But they weren't competing, instead they were serving as sous chefs for the two men in the finale. Mike Isabella and Richard Blais (who won), were presumably the two best chefs in the competition-but were they really? We asked the show's female veterans why women don't make Top Chefs.

"The boys play the game differently from the girls," says "All Star" contestant Casey Thompson, who made it to the finals in her first season on the show. "I don't think men are more professional, I think it's just how competition is built and played."

"Women can only go so hard without getting labeled a 'b-tch' but men can push to the end of the universe," says Tiffani Faison, another all-star contestant who served as one of Mike's sous chefs last night. She was particularly upset that Jennifer Carroll, who vehemently defended her dish at the judges' table, was sent home early in the game. "They keep saying she was sent home for her dish," she says. "That's B.S. She was sent home for her behavior."

Tiffany Derry, one of this season's female finalists, thinks Antonia should have stayed to the end. "The judges most of the time get it right, other than Antonia, I didn't understand that one," she says. Last week's decision drew a fault line between the sexes: Antonia's bold broth with uninhibited flavor versus Mike's more restrained, technically-impressive lobster and beef tartar. Antonia went home.

Ever since the cooking competition first aired in 2006, it's been a microcosm of gender politics.
"I feel like we're more attached to certain things," adds Tiffany. "Certain people mess up as much as anybody else but for us it's an emotional thing."

Are women too emotional? Are they too afraid of what people think of them? Is the game just better designed for men? The answer is in the numbers: seven out of eight Top Chefs so far have been men. Maybe their dishes taste better, but there's more to the game than just cooking.

Negotiation skills, intense, singular focus, confidence and a love of kitchen gadgets are key ingredients to winning, based on prior seasons. Also the ability, as they say in reality TV, to "throw someone under the bus."

"Women are more likely to help each other out, and not as many men on the show would do that," says Casey, who also found her fellow contestants on this season were more critical of their female counterparts. "If a girl won with a dish they didn't think deserved it, they'd get an attitude and form this boys team. Especially when it came to soups, guys hated when women made soups."

Soups or no, women generally cook differently from men on the show. "Antonia and myself are different in our cooking, we don't do a lot of molecular gastronomy," says Tiffany. "We tend to cook from our heart." While leading female players are cooking with "love" (Carla) or "staying true to themselves" (Antonia), the male contestants are turning their stations into chemistry labs. It's science versus poetry, and for viewers, science just looks cooler.

That may not sway the judges. For Tom, Padma and Gail, it's about the contestant's ability, and the pool of potential female contestants is limited. The culinary field as a whole is a man's world. In the US, only about 4 percent of executive chefs are women.

"I've never worked under a woman chef," says Tiffany. "I actually don't know many that have been in the game much longer than me. Everyone who has mentored me has been men."

On "Top Chef" men also dominate in numbers-most seasons, including this one, start off with more male contestants. From the Top Chef kitchen to the Top Chef apartment where they all live while filming, men have a bigger presence. The so-called "boys club" in the house started to fray some of the female contestants' nerves. One source close to the show said the gender division was so strong, producers organized a special sexual harassment education discussion to keep the peace. However, the series' press rep denied that was the reason, calling it "standard legal protocol for every reality show across the network."

The big challenge women may have is at the judge's table. Workplace data suggests women don't negotiate for themselves as much as men because they don't want to be perceived as unlikable. That's an especially big fear when you're on TV. But in a game where negotiation plays a large role in who stays and who goes home, it's also lose-lose.

Tiffani got to the finals on season one, but her backtalk to the judges made her a reality show villain. This season, she took a softer approach which she thinks stood in her way. "Going back this time I knew I couldn't be the way I was on season one, but maybe I could have gone farther if I didn't change."

Still, the contestants are quick to defend the judges. "The judges really don't pull favorite cards. It's really about the food," says Casey. "Tom's been incredibly supportive of women chefs on the show," adds Tiffani.

In fact, all three women are opening (or have opened) their own restaurants as a result of the exposure they got on the show. The series has also been groundbreaking for women in another way: it's one of the only shows on TV where they're not primped, plastic or perfect looking. Season after season, Top Chef portrays the unicorns of the small screen: women with real body types, sometimes over 40, not wearing makeup. What's more, this isn't a makeover show. It's a show about work. Now if only more women could win at it.

So what makes a female Top Chef? Based on the sole woman who's won so far, Stephanie Izard, she's got to have that elusive combination of being fan favorite and judge's favorite. "I think it has to be the right woman," says Tiffani. "Stephanie came along and was all nurturing and talking about how she does this out of love, but she also had incredible chops."

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